In the Finland of this novel by Johanna Sinisalo and translated by Lola Rogers, women are sorted during childhood into two groups: Eloi and Morlocks (named inspired by H.G. Wells). The Morlocks are the workers, free to live as they choose, although the life is hard. The Eloi are pampered and taken care of, taught to be perfect wives and mothers and to desire nothing other than to be those perfect wives and mothers. Education in anything other than domesticity is out of the question.
The plan is that, in time, breeding will win out, and the fertile Eloi will outnumber the sterilized Morlocks. It’s eugenics and social conditioning with a massive dose of Puritanism, because in this world, drugs and alcohol are forbidden. The only high available is through illicit use of capsaicin-laden chiles, also illegal but available on the black market.
The main character in The Core of the Sun is Vera, known to others by her Eloi name, Vanna. As a child, Vera was identified as an Eloi, but that’s only because she was clever enough to realize that she needed to mimic her sister, Manna, in order to stay with her. From an early age, Manna’s interests were stereotypically feminine, full of the qualities that the authorities wanted bred into their women. Because Vera hid her independence and intelligence, she was able to become an Eloi a sister to Manna, but now Manna has disappeared, and Vera has become a chile addict and seller, working alongside Jare, a man (or masco) who used to work on her family’s farm.
I read this book during a week full of news about the abuse of women, and much of what happened in this book made me think of the ways women are taught to accept abuse. The strictly patriarchal culture in this book shields women from any outside influences. It limits their options so that the only option for happiness that they see is love and marriage and babies and the only interests worth cultivating are those that will enable them to gain that happiness. It made me think of the time when my social circles included mostly conservative evangelicals and how often I heard that a woman’s primary joy and purpose was to be found in marriage. And I remember how miserable I felt that I had so little luck at dating. (When I left that culture, not dating much bothered me a lot less.)
It should be no surprise that the Eloi women don’t always get the happy endings they are taught to yearn for. They may get a wedding, but the husbands, who get their property, have no particular obligation to treat them well.
All of that made the world of this book feel incredibly real to me. One might question whether a whole country in today’s world could cut itself off the way this version of Finland does. (The book was first published in 2013 but is set in 2016 and 2017.) But I think about how strict fundamentalist communities feed themselves with their own media and books and music, and I can see it. The Finns in this book view the outside with suspicion, and when you hear that enough, you start to believe it.
One thing, though, that interested me was the use of chiles in the book. Why is this the addictive substance people turn to? Why not alcohol or pot or opiates? When Vera eats chiles, she responds to the pain and feels energized by it. There’s something rousing in it. This is a world where physical sensation is supposed to be immaterial, especially to women. Eating something spicy would give them enough of a jolt. And there is danger if they aren’t handled correctly.
Most of the story is told from Vera’s perspective, both in the present and in letters she writes to Manna. But we also set some of Jare’s memories, as well as excerpts from various documents about the novel’s society. This is a type of world-building that I enjoy, and there was a good mix here of story and setup. The ending of the book is a bit mystifying, and I’m not sure what I think of it, but the book as a whole is a good one.